The central characters of The Young Lions, it has been charged, are not real characters but the embodiments of ideas. Critics and reviewers tend to find too little individualization and too much symbolism in the personalities and the actions of Christian, Michael, and Noah. Shaw’s characters, it appears, are propaganda figures rather than rounded characters.
Christian, for example, seems a stereotypical Nazi soldier. There is nothing German about him except his army uniform; whatever might be the influences of geography, culture, and history upon German character are ignored. Instead, readers follow Christian’s moral deterioration as he lives out the consequences of Nazi philosophy. Having heard that Germans are a master race who can rightly rule by force over inferior races, Christian loses all moral scruples as the novel progresses. His actions become increasingly savage: In the struggle to survive, nothing human can be allowed to have value. From callous attacks on enemy soldiers, Christian proceeds to abandoning his own men ruthlessly, to murdering innocent civilians, to betraying a wartime friend to fanatic SS troops. Christian follows out the ultimate logic of his worldview: If Nazism allows the strong to use the weak as they see fit, then the strong may sacrifice even Nazis to stay alive. In his most inhuman act, Christian disguises himself as an inmate during a concentration camp riot and stabs a German officer to death in a successful ploy to hide his identity.
Michael Whitacre likewise appears to embody a social class rather than to exist as an individual. Michael is the typical prewar liberal whose heart is in the right place—he despises the Fascism sweeping Europe—and who speaks enthusiastically of democracy. When Michael comes face to face, however, with fellow Americans who are uneducated, prejudiced, and unthinking, he recants his patriotic gesture of enlisting and seeks to protect himself in a more privileged detachment. Yet even as he flees active service, he experiences the archetypal guilt of the liberal for acting in a way that he knows is weak. It is not surprising that Michael comes to the conclusion that “five years after the war is over, we’re all liable to look back with regret at every bullet that missed us.”
Noah, who emerges as the novel’s most admirable character, seems weakened by being constructed as such an obvious underdog. He is Jewish, an obvious sociological counterpoint to the Christian Germans who begin to carry out genocide and to the German Christian who shoots him. Noah suffers the most physically of any protagonist, but his spirit grows more courageous and undaunted the more he...
(The entire section is 1096 words.)